Click to hear: “Sodium Chloride”
Turns out, Huak is really fun.
If you watch them play live, you’ll be charmed by this young, spirited quartet. They’ve got vigor and heat and humor, an appealing confidence and poise with some mathrock geekiness thrown in. As bassist Stefan Hanson projects offhanded cool — his fingers galloping up and down the neck — guitarists Jake Lowry and Joel Glidden jump and gyrate, and new drummer Mike Cunnane pounds away. Seeing the band connects you to tactile, visceral elements that reinforce the vitality inside Huak’s music and offset its cerebral qualities.
Ron Harrity’s Peapod Recordings released Huak’s debut, Trajectory, in late summer. The album showcases the group’s rigor and jaggedness and touches of lyricism, presenting seven gem-like songs of hard beauty. Immediately interesting, the music grows challenging because of its complexity and density. Some of the playing, as well as the songs’ structures, suggests proggy intelligence, yet there is a punky thrust in the music and an emotional urgency in Lowry’s voice as he shares his poetic perceptions.
In keeping with the album’s overall Calvinist tone, there’s not a love song on the disc. Instead, lyrics touch on insomnia and existential angst (“Goodnight Moon”), lack vs. plenty (“Jeremiah”), the stultifying effects of organized religion (“Holy Sonnet”), and the tribulations of the migraine sufferer (“Under Artificial Light”).
The songs contain numerous sections — way above and beyond verses and choruses — and these passages are often marked by sudden shifts in rhythm, tempo, and dynamics. The band executes its ornate compositions with lean instrumentation. Lowry plays guitar figures, lines and riffs in lieu of full chords, and Glidden adds keyboards here and there. Yet the sound’s bottom end is busy. Hanson plays a slew of bass notes, and quickly; his nimble, if uneasy, parts frequently add coloring in the middle register. Original drummer Erik Loren’s playing is crisp, virtuousic, and similarly hyperactive — moreover, it’s mixed quite far forward.
There are times while listening to Huak’s music that I find myself brought up short, disoriented from the collision of two time signatures. It’s a familiar enough sensation, one I associate with Bill Bruford and other prog musicians, as well as with some forms of thorny punk. You feel it on the dance floor, or while listening up on your feet, when a sudden shift of rhythm and tempo leaves your body caught and uncertain. In this way, Huak plays tag — or is it hide and seek? — with the listener, and this game can be exhilarating. I find myself grabbing onto a groove or a deep rhythm (as often as not, provided by Lowry’s guitar) and riding it as long as I can. These passages don’t last long, but they have a significant impact, grounding the songs in straight rock forms, sounding the path from which the band diverges.
The kinetic, nervous feel of Huak’s music may bring the Minutemen to mind (though Huak doesn’t claim humor or brevity as core values, as the San Pedro band did). A more apt comparison is the formidably brainy yet tough Mission of Burma. Like that angular powerhouse, Huak conveys gravity and sobriety through muscular, aggressive playing, an instinct for sinewy rather than voluptuous melodies, and spare use of harmony or background vocals.
Huak’s artful use of lead and supporting vocals is a key ingredient in the overall tonal palette. On nearly all the tracks, answering vocals are calls and hollers (by Lowry and Glidden) that feel like a buoyant mob or a drunken Greek chorus, breaking the tight focus of the band’s singer/seer. You get handclaps and a shouted Hey! in “Holy Sonnet,” and odd barks (Whoop!) in “Goodnight Moon” — elements that effectively throw open the windows and tip over the songs’ furniture.
Spanning 30 minutes, Trajectory could be considered a short LP or a longish EP. The band elected to eliminate pauses between tracks and sequenced the album for maximum power and momentum. The first four songs — including the terrific “Sodium Chloride” — are followed by an untitled, 34-second feedback buffer that gives way to three of the album’s standout tracks.
“Portland” opens with one of Trajectory’s few slow, “pretty” passages, a languid interlude featuring slightly jazzy guitar and Wurlitzer electric piano that coasts along, supporting a description of how “the soft glow of after-hours streetlight… illuminates briefly…” This moment of tenderness gets rudely interrupted, the band downshifting the song and Lowry croaking, “Then into darkness again /Into ambiguous darkness again /The darkness that everybody knows /But nobody knows!”
Next is “Goodnight Moon,” perhaps my favorite track, a strident protest that turns raucous at the end, the throng shouting: “This is something we all regret / This is something we don’t miss!” The album’s shortest track, at 2:47, “Goodnight Moon” shows the authority this band can wield when it strips things down and slams the door.
Huak closes the album with “Under Artificial Light,” a big ol’ multicolored tour de force. Cathartic and triumphant in true rockist fashion, this song is an impassioned rendering of the distinct (yet nearly ineffable) horrors of an approaching migraine headache. “I- I- I- eyestrain!” Lowry cries into a dreadful storm of sensory overload.
Trajectory was recorded in the winter of 2007/08 by Tony Bitetti at Hogan Recordings in Orono. For me, trajectory is one of those words that emits a general math/science vibe. Yet its actual meaning, “the curved path of something hurtling through space,” is sharply provocative. For Huak, what is the “something” — the planet, the songwriter’s consciousness, an actual or emotional missile? The photographic diptych on the CD cover uses gallows humor to suggest one interpretation — the path from soft ease and comfort to the harsh confinement of some kind of “treatment.” That’s a dark vision indeed, and one well worth exploring through Huak’s difficult, rewarding music.
— David Pence